A techno-expert in chemicals, Dr Ramki Subramanian’s passion is to build businesses based on commercialization of new technologies. He has more than 25 years of business development experience in the Chemicals and Energy Sectors. Prior to his present role at Reliance Industries Ltd as the Business Development Head, he launched his own venture – Lithe Power. It was a business of providing lithium-ion UPS for mission-critical applications. Before that, Dr Subramanian worked for over 15 years at The Dow Chemical Co – both in the US and India. There, he played a crucial role in commercializing new technologies for several applications. Through his sharp business acumen, strong entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial skills, he has brought forward promising technologies and materials in the market.
Recently, SURFACES REPORTER got the opportunity to speak with Mr Ramki Subramanian about his journey, career, entrepreneurship and the challenges he endeavoured that helped him to develop a profound outlook on new product development of RelWood™.
Please give us an overview of your journey so far?
Particularly, my background has been in commercializing new technologies. And I have had a good fortune of working with different technologies and materials, which gave me an experience that has helped me to get new solutions of products differently and then I moved back to India after staying around 20 years in the U.S. I was at the primary focal point to help the various Dow businesses that wanted to grow in India. Then, I got bitten by the entrepreneur bug, so I started my own company and developed new power systems (UPS) for rural India, where electricity is a big problem. Then about 3 and a half years ago, I joined Reliance and the next set of businesses for Reliance, like RelWood™, based on new materials.
So, what are the challenges you have taken up right now and how it's proceeding?
The current product portfolio is all in the area of commodity polymers. So, what I wanted to do was to look at how we can bring new technology not only to create absolutely new businesses but also to upgrade some of the portfolios that we have. So, to do this, we needed to start having some key capabilities; one is what we call the material’s engineering capability and talk over how I design something from scratch. So, that is based on fundamental material science and design. The second capability is in polymer formulations. We come up with new polymer formulations that add a lot of value to existing materials. We look at new materials like graphene and other 2-D materials. Another one is the area of composites. The main theme for composites is how do you create lightweight materials and reduce the carbon footprint. So, these are the common themes we are trying to imbibe in creating these new business opportunities.
What is the current status of RelWood™ by Reliance? Tell us more about the features of the product.
We have started our first production line. We are in the process of scaling up. Our first line is operational, and within the next 4-6 months, we will be having additional capacity to make sheets, profiles, etc., Over the period of one year, we have been steadily developing solutions, a portfolio, so that people can see the possibilities with this material.
It is especially suitable for outdoor because of the weather ability but just as good in indoor also, the waterproofing, the thermo-formability, the design attributes or the design degrees freedom that is exponentially higher with this material compared to conventional wood, or plywood materials. That is what we are focusing on, and now we are backfilling the pipeline with our production capacity. In the next six months, we will have over 10 KT, and then soon after, we start ramping up to 50 or 125 so on and so forth. So, this is as far as the production is concerned.
Regarding the product, we have a genuinely sustainable material in the context of zero wood. So, for people who like wood but care about sustainability while desiring their aspirations to be met, this is a fantastic material with unique attributes. Though some materials are water-proof and termite-proof, very few materials have a combination of these. Plus the fact that you can make it look absolutely look like any type of wood with the possibilities of thermoforming makes it close to none. Although this is not a panacea for everything, this gives you design flexibility and the premium look and feel of wood.
We would like to know about – the sustainability factors and mainly the product life cycle.
We look at the total end-to-end life cycle of the material. From that basis, RelWood™ is a truly sustainable material because it can be reused and recycled completely. Let’s assume you have a unique furniture piece made with RelWood™ and 10 years down the line you want to change to a new style. We will be able to take that RelWood™ furniture piece back and recycle that into some other object. And that too can be recycled down the line. This is the way we have designed the product formulation with the total life cycle in mind.
How does it decompose and what is its composition?
We all want materials that last long and is sturdy in the application, especially when it is kept outside and exposed to the elements. This is how RelWood™ is designed. So, RelWood™ is not designed to be decomposable. However, as stated earlier, we will be able to recycle completely. You cannot put into a ground fill and expect it to decompose. But what we are doing is setting up awareness about responsible use of the product. We are happy to help you in figuring out how to recycle it and convert it into something completely different.
What is the difference in price when compared to wood and plywood?
Being a high-end material, it will be a little bit more than your top end of plywood and comparatively less than or close to some wood varieties.
Give us an idea about the products made from RelWood™?
You will get different thicknesses and densities. So depending on what your application needs up, you can fine-tune your product requirements.